MÔTÔ Spirits distills global flavors in Bushwick

Marie Estrada, a co-founder of MÔTÔ Spirits in Bushwick, seen here removing the bung from a barrel. Photo Credit: Polly Higgins

The distillery specializes in rice whiskey and jabuka, an apple-based spirit.

Marie Estrada, a co-founder of MÔTÔ Spirits in Bushwick, seen here removing the bung from a barrel.
Marie Estrada, a co-founder of MÔTÔ Spirits in Bushwick, seen here removing the bung from a barrel. Photo Credit: Knopf Books for Young Readers

A love of travel and community meet at MÔTÔ Spirits in Bushwick.

Marie Estrada and Hagai Yardeny set up shop in 2016, looking to create a business that would allow them to explore the globe while also carving out a way to connect with people at home in Brooklyn. The result is a distillery inspired by their trips that produces rice whiskey and jabuka, an apple-based spirit, with a motorcycle-themed twist.

Estrada and Yardeny met living in the same Williamsburg building. Estrada says they consider themselves “siblings from other parents.” They are both immigrants (Yardeny from Israel, Estrada from the Philippines), they both love traveling, food and drink, and share an entrepreneurial spirit. Estrada was working in book publishing when she got certified as a sommelier and started a business selling pantry items. Meanwhile, Yardeny fell in love with Vietnamese hospitality while on a motorcycle journey through the country, specifically rice wine, a sort of moonshine that locals would offer him. Yardeny brought water bottles filled with rice wine back to Brooklyn, but for some reason, it didn’t taste as good.

“I said, ‘Maybe you fell in love with the association of [the rice wine] and the spirit of your trip,’” Estrada recalls.

She says she encouraged Yardeny to find a version of rice wine in the United States, but that Yardeny is “impatient and an entrepreneur, so he said, ‘Let’s just make it.’”

They began distilling in a cleared-out communal bathroom in their building. A friend pointed out that they were actually making rice whiskey, since whiskey has to be made with 100% grain. Sticking with it, Yardeny and Estrada began aging the rice whiskey in rum, bourbon and whiskey barrels to experiment with different flavors. As enthusiasm for their product grew, it just so happened that Yardeny needed space to store his motorcycles (he has six total). He found a place in Bushwick big enough for both his storage needs and the distilling operation.

“It was serendipity,” Estrada says. “It became clear that this wasn’t simply a hobby, it was an actual business.”

Emily Pennell (from left), Hagai Yardeny and Marie Estrada toast inside MÔTÔ Spirits.
Emily Pennell (from left), Hagai Yardeny and Marie Estrada toast inside MÔTÔ Spirits. Photo Credit: Polly Higgins

Their mission is to find inspiration for new spirits the world over and capture the traditions of far-flung destinations using mostly local ingredients. For instance, their jabuka derives from their travels throughout Croatia — “jabuka” means apple in Croatian. It is 80% apples and 20% rice, perfect for MÔTÔ Spirits because one of their licenses is a craft distilling license, requiring that at least 75% of their ingredients are New York-grown. Estrada says they love being able to work with upstate farms and walk to farmers markets to pick up the apples for their jabuka, plus other things to experiment with, like blueberries and Concord grapes.

MÔTÔ Spirits’ rice whiskey and jabuka can be found in more than 70 different wine and liquor stores, primarily in Brooklyn and Manhattan, as well as a handful of bars. Though the distillery itself is a special way to discover these creations, including in the form of cocktails, which Estrada crafts based on the season. The taproom, which debuted in July 2018, is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and there are frequently events on Friday and Saturday evenings. The space hosts all different kinds of occasions, too — recently that included a play.

This Saturday, the distillery will have its first MÔTÔ Spirits Night Market, featuring food and craft vendors selling items tied to different regions of the world. “The first market will be our Vietnam edition because we wouldn’t even have a distillery if it weren’t for Vietnam,” Estrada says.

Future night markets will be shared on MÔTÔ’s Facebook page, along with other events like a monthly Yappy Hour; patrons can bring their dogs for “Woof Whiskey” — bone broth poured into little flasks. “I can name the dogs,” Estrada laughs about her regulars. “I can name the people, too — they become my friends.”

Beyond the actual distilling, Estrada and Yardeny juggle everything from dealing with government regulations to marketing to hiring and training to running events to deliveries. Estrada says it’s all worth it, though, for the lifestyle that comes with owning MÔTÔ Spirits.

"I literally get to discover things every single day … and there’s the fact that I can travel because of this business — that I can justify that I can travel the world,” says Estrada, who since founding MÔTÔ has set out on motorcycle adventures, too.

Motorcyles line the back wall of MÔTÔ Spirits.
Motorcyles line the back wall of MÔTÔ Spirits. Photo Credit: Polly Higgins

IF YOU GO

MÔTÔ Spirits is located at 93 Forrest St. in Bushwick. For more info, visit motospirits.com.

Courtney Iseman